Batman at 75: Ra’s al Ghul…The Dark Knight Villain to Beat

Ra's al Ghul Winner Batman

At the forefront of the campaign to bolster Batman’ darkness in the early 1970s, Ra’s al Ghul has taken a journey to the core of the Dark Knight’s story befitting the Demon’s Head himself. In fact, as Batman turns 75, could he have possibly become the indispensible Batman villain?  Spoilers guaranteed for those not up-to-date with Ra’s on screen and page…

HE’S NOT QUITE THE HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT TAKE A MOMENT TO CONSIDER THE TALENT WHO HAVE PORTRAYED THE ENIGMATIC VILLAIN ON SCREEN IN THE LAST TWO DECADES…

David Warner, Peter Woodward, Oded Fehr, Lance Reddick, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe (well, yeah), Jason Isaacs, Giancarlo Esposito, Don Leslie, Dee Bradley Baker, Steven Blum…

A mixed bag, but one stashed on the shelf of extreme quality, and he only made it out of the comics in 1992… 22 years on and it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that doesn’t feature Ra’s al Ghul – from Christopher Nolan’s box office stomping Dark Knight trilogy to cash cow Arkham videogames. So, who is he and why has his media career mirrored his fictional rise?

Paper

Origin of the Demon

A villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal…

Ra’s first appeared in 1971, the creation of legendary creative team writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams and a reaction to the campery of the Batman TV series that had finished just a few years earlier.

Master criminal Fu Manchu, who had also recently completed his peak run on screen and 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – arguably the highlight of Blofeld’s cinematic exploits – fed into the creation of a villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal. Ra’s was a globe-trotting tour-de-force, albeit one who could engage all the key levels of Gotham’s first son. Ra’s ongoing mission was one that could reawaken Batman’s deduction, increase his international exploits, gift him a physical match and necessarily darker those shades of grey.

That creative dynamic duo not only succeeded in creating an effective and distinctive character, but one who quickly headed to the top tier of threat in the DC Comic Universe. In the pantheon of super villains he was soon established as a global threat who could not only hit Batman on multiple levels but also the Justice League of America.

In many ways, despite the lack of innate supernatural powers, he provides similar opposition to the Justice League of America as immortal mutant Apocalypse does to the X-Men, soon to be seen as the X-Men ‘s greatest cinematic threat yet. The 1996 Amalgam project even fused them into Ra’s Al-Pocalypse.

And in 1971 it all started with a girl…

The Demon’s Daughter

..>When he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Batman’s girl that is. Ra’s first appearance, Batman 232’s Daughter of the Demon was a complicated trap to test the Dark Knight as a suitable suitor for his daughter Talia. Well, it was more a test to see if the man Talia was infatuated with was worthy. He was, earning Ra’s ongoing respect on the way. It’s no coincidence that this original plot was seized on at the start of the arc that ended Batman’s pre-New 52 run (RIP). Through strenuous canon-or-not debate, Talia and Wayne’s relationship resulted in a son, Damian, who in a few short years has become a well regarded part of the DC universe. On the al Ghul side, Talia wasn’t the subject of a forced or false marriage; the attraction was mutual, and so any machinations on Ra’s part were replaced with the fact that he had a point and was essentially open to logical reason.

And he often is, when he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.

Eternal Mystery

Ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray…

That would be the supernatural coming in to play. There is the inherent mystery of the ill defined Arabia he hails from of course, and the inbuilt Bond villain / Fu Manchu army that comes as the head of the League of Assassins. Christopher Nolan would take this as an additional, or main, motivation for the Mantle of the Bat in his Dark Knight trilogy. But then there’s the immortality. He may be over 600 years old, but it’s actually a cheat. Ra’s rejuvenation comes from Lazarus Pits, chemical wells laid out on the ley lines of the Earth that grant the Demon’s Head life extension, at the cost of temporary insanity. A short spell of enhanced strength encourages the idea that these Pits are rabidly crazy ways to extend one’s life. There is also the hint that over use could lead to the gradual mental instability. Ra’s long life is ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray.

That gifts Ra’s not only a supernatural stint by default, tied into his motivation, but also a reason for his sporadic appearances. The New 52 played soft boot with the DC universe, changing the use of Lazarus Pits but retaining story points such as Ra’s apparent death in the 2004 storyline Death and the Maidens.

Eco-Terrorist

Tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly…

Ra’s is therefore mortal, and possibly couldn’t be ‘more of Earth’. From the off, his motivation has been humanity’s cradle itself; the achievement of balance that often necessitates the eradication of the majority of humanity. Unlike fellow ‘immortal’ Vandal Savage he does not seek mastership particularly, simply that balance. Often Ra’s methods are biological. Plagues and viruses in particular. When the concisely named DC Universe Animated Original Movies Doom replaced Ra’s with Vandal Savage as villain of their adaptation of the monumental Tower of Babel storyline it just didn’t feel as wholesome.

Of course, Batman himself meant that genome and lineage was tied into the Ra’s story from the start, and that has an overall impact. He’s tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly, and that can only reflect well and to the credit of Batman, the man suitable to be his heir. Just as the League of Assassins can be seen as a splinter of The Demon movement, the lineage of al Ghul or his children is utterly unknown. Recent years have seen the introduction of Talia’s older sister Nyssa Raatko and their White Ghost brother. Ra’s adds inflation to every storyline he’s brought near. World danger elevates any story and what is Gotham but a microcosm for the world?

Mirroring

His is not the equalling yang of Joker…

Perhaps most compelling is how Ra’s reflects the key facets of the man he honourably calls ‘The Detective’. He’s no slavish copy or inverted Man-Bat. Ra’s had soon deduced the Dark Knight’s true identity, although the secret could hardly be in better hands. While Batman’s alter-ego is to a degree open for exploitation, Ra’s own is lost in mystery and his relationship with The Detective based on a level of respect.

He respects Batman’s skill through the eyes of centuries of accumulated knowledge, which is no bad reference. And of course, he wouldn’t lead the League he does without considerable fighting prowess. His is not the equalling yang of Joker, the jealousy of Riddler nor the benchmarking of Bane. He’s a father-in law-in waiting and both have a grudging respect for the other’s methods and abilities.

As a Batman villain however, he requires a level of gothic grotesque. There’s no mistake he verges across his Arabic roots and British Empire, often portrayed by European actors. He’s a shadowy variant of Dickens as much as Wilde.

Relevance

With every passing day since his conception he becomes more relevant

His motivation is one made for the modern age. No matter any other consideration, Ra’s could not have been conceived as a villain of the Dark Knight in the late 1930s, but with every passing day since his conception he becomes more familiar and more integrated to the Dark Knight’s agenda. And the veracity of that has been proved on film more than anywhere else.

Batpull

Celluloid

A Theme for the Dark Knight

A major preoccupation for the trilogy

Following Batman and Robin, Ra’s was an eminently sensible villain for the Bat-franchise to pick-up. Untouched by previous films, breaking the TV series expectations of camp and classic villains, but also bringing a strong back story with good fan following but ripe for reinvention. Christopher Nolan fused him with Ducard, the French fighter who had trained young Bruce Wayne a decoy that totally threw me just as Ken Watanabe decoy fooled Bruce Wayne. It all worked rather well in a film I thought an otherwise underwhelming start.

It was a further surprise when it became apparent that Ra’s provided the thematic link of the Dark Knight trilogy. The surprise was lessened however, given Bane’s links to the al Ghul family in the comics and Marion Cotillard’s casting – just too perfect not to be Talia. The Dark Knight Rises had the pit, but there was no venom for Bane, no resurrection for Ra’s – except in the mind, a major preoccupation for the trilogy.

Fight Training

Chief educator of Queensbury Rules

An interesting offshoot was the need to retcon and revise Batman’s training. Post-New 52 there’s a clear tendency to build up Alfred’s role as Bruce Wayne’s chief educator of Queensbury Rules. Perhaps a natural conclusion as original fighting role model Wildcat and other Justice Society Members become increasingly less plausible 70 years on from World War II. In comics, this recently became apparent in Geoff John’s Earth One where Alfred Pennyworth is appointed head of security by Thomas Wayne. On the small screen, it will be pursued by Sean Pertwee’s role as Batman’s batman in Gotham, this time a former SAS officer.

It would also come to bear in Batman’s latest animated exploits, along with a certain mystical super villain…

Ras wcu

Beware the Bat

Ra’s makes a significant contribution…

A sad legacy of Beware the Batman is that it appears to have been shelved in Batman’s anniversary year.

The first solely CGI animated series, Beware the Batman was designed as a more serious reaction to the marvellously joyful and successful Silver Age campery of Brave and the Bold. After many continuous years of Batman stories, a more serious soap storyline in Gotham necessitated a shift. Robin was out, but in was a Katana ready to reference her traditional Outsiders role alongside Metamorpho.

The CGI created crisp, dramatic, fight scenes but there’s always something a little flat to my taste as you can read here. Care was made to make villains as grotesque and over the top as possible, yet never quite hits the high it should despite the interesting run of lesser known villains. In Catwoman’s place is stolen by Magpie, filling in for the Joker’s anarchy is, well, Anarky. Recent additions are Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Toad, bringing a demented Wind in the Willows to town.

Fittingly for a show that was itself a reaction, Ra’s also makes a significant contribution. Again, the supernatural is deflected. There is no talk of Lazarus Pits, but Ra’s is transported in cryogenic suspension. The MacGuffin of the Soultaker sword is the chief nod to the mysticism surrounding him and proves to be his, probably not ultimate, downfall. His chief underling is Lady Shiva, in the comics another trainer of young Bruce Wayne. Here it is an aging Alfred who trained Batman, a former Mi6 agent who interestingly had previous with Ra’s. It’s strange to hear The Demon’s Head refer to the butler as Agent Pennyworth as much as the flashbacks to Alfred in combat action.

Post Dark Knight, something different is expected and Beware the Batman doesn’t falter. Ra’s huge Gotham-centred plot picks up some comic exploits, especially Knightfall, and when foiled it leaves a vacuum that inadvertently leads to Harvey Dent’s arrival and decent to Two Face.

The battle concluded, it now looks unlikely that we’ll see the war continue on that show. But with the cinematic reboot underway, it’s unlikely we’ll have to wait long for the League and The Demon’s Head to reappear. Although it’s unclear how the cinematic and rapidly expanding televisual adaptations of DC will fit together, Nyssa al Ghul (Raatko) has recently made an appearance in The CW’s Arrow described as the ‘child of Ra’s al Ghul’.

It’s a considerable nod to Ra’s al Ghul that it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that will be able to resist him.

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Batman: Rebooting Batmen – The Brave and the Bold

Brave and the batmen

It’s easy to dismiss as another in the constant roster of DC animated series, but Batman: The Brave and the Bold plays a pivotal role in picking up the past and sowing the seeds of the Dark Knight’s future.

SATURDAY MORNING CHILDREN CARTOONS CAN BE A BIT OF A SURPRISE.  Whether that’s nostalgia, something tolerable your kids have found or simply viewed through the fug of a hangover – or all three – some of them stick.

Batman: the Brave and the Bold (TBATB) wasn’t one of those.  On its UK run, I caught it maybe twice – the same episode both times of course – and dismissed it as the latest kid friendly iteration of the Dark Knight’s day time adventures.  Slight and packaged in easy Technicolor with the boisterous campery of its title sequence, I didn’t give it much credit having just watched a two series of the ambitious Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS).  TBATB was far removed from that, with The Batman and Batman Beyond in between, not counting other DC Universe off-shoots.  But then, a week ago I stumbled across TBATB and…  Soon kapowed through the first season.  I discovered it’s rather brilliantly done. As a throw-back to the Silver Age of comic books, If can’t think of better praise than saying that definitive animated Batman Kevin Conroy isn’t missed.  If you don’t expect the dark drama and profound storylines of other Batman series, TBATB holds many surprises.  More than just its consistency and sense of humour, I’m a bit in awe of the level of the show’s confidence and what that creative team managed to pull off.  …

Batsetting

BTAS is rightly regarded as classic television, animated or not.  It had dark, redemptive themes, wonderful art deco stylings and brilliant casting (and voice direction to bat-boot).  It took confident and driven creators to change the perception of the Dark Knight in cartoon – a format where Superfriends and Scooby-Doo still cast some camp shadows.  It was the early 1990s, and Batman was dominant at the cinema, but Tim Burton’s realisation couldn’t simply be transferred to the small screen.  It would only become apparent afterwards that the Burton Batman ended as BTAS started.   But by drawing on the success and the style little seen in big screen superheroics, BTAS could use the cinema as a springboard.  The gothic stylings and Danny Elfman’s superb score were identified as translatable elements and they worked brilliantly.  The title wasn’t only accurate, it was aspirational. While the film series ran on the big screen, these animated tales would be every bit their equal.  The pathos of the Two face tale, the tragedy of Clayface’s origin, the superbly dark Mark Hamill iteration of the Joker, confirmed that BTAS reached the same artistic level as the best of the Bat films.

In doing so, it laid down a large gauntlet – increasingly so as its quality fed into the New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series while the Batman films stuttered in the late 1990s.  BTAS wasn’t exactly a fresh direction for the Dark Knight, 60 years into his career, but its legacy would live on.   David Warner’s portrayal of Ra’s Al Ghul may be more comic book, but the construction of Two Face formed part of a renaissance in the character that would push Harvey Dent to being, pre- and post-transformation, the integral figure of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

When it came to the Lego: Batman videogame in 2008, it was the still heavy legacy of Burton’s Batman that led to the decision to use Danny Elfman’s score, but by that time BTAS itself surely played a matching part.  The highly successful Arkham videogame series hasn’t had to look further than Kevin Conroy as their Batman for the most part.  Though defined by change, shreds of each of the Batmen permeate the others.  As almost the ideal example of that, TBATB premiered in late 2008 – the same year as The Dark Knight reclaimed Batman’s crown at the cinema – and lasted three seasons.

Animators have long had to react against the film reiterations of Batman on screen.   The Batman, the tale of a young Bruce Wayne taking on the mantle of the Bat surfaced in 2004, a year before Batman Begins.  In its way, it took a similar tack to the BTAS. You couldn’t translate Christian Bale’s Batman directly into cartoon, but took the youthful approach as a launch point.  When it finished around the time of the The Dark Knight, that difficulty in translation was confirmed.  The film series was set onscreen for at least one more instalment, which left a nice void for TBATB – for the first time, a complete divergence.   The Batman wasn’t un-innovative – their feral Joker is proof of that, but TBATB didn’t have to react as much as do what it wanted.  If it was intended to be particularly kid friendly, it had the luck to have a serious set of personnel to develop it.

TBATB doesn’t paw the same ground as BTAS, but there are references to its illustrious forbear just as there are to many parts of the Caped Crusader’s history.  Batman, and his non-supernatural opponents, don satisfyingly physical knuckle dusters when the need arises – but any violence soon ends in a still frame as close to the ‘kapow’ of the 1960s Batman as it could be without using the word.  Even the death trap makes a glorious reappearance.

Batorigins

TBATB is a title used intermittently by DC Comics since 1955, in each iteration pairing superheroes who may not normally hang out together.  In the early ‘60s it had moved on from Robin Hood to incorporate the first sightings of The Suicide Squad and in 1960 itself, the first appearance of the Justice League (followed three years later by the Teen Titans).

Following the success of the ‘60s TV series, issues 74 to 200 of TBATB were exclusively Batman team-ups and that’s where, decades later, the animated show picks up.  One of the most fascinating parts of comic lore is how new creative teams and overseers interpret and reinterpret decades of acquisitions, team-ups and trademarks.  The TBATB brand name has staying power, despite its archaic title.  It was after all was envisaged for those early knights, gladiators and Hoods, not the capes and cowls it now encompasses.  While it may be prefaced with Batman, that silver age innocence remains. In the later episode Night of the Huntress, both Huntress and Blue Beetle transform in pure throwbacks to that time.

Batfamily

TBATB the cartoon takes Batman as the starting point, but this is an easier Dark Knight.  He may be a workaholic, but he takes the Silver Age in his stride – especially when he’s surrounded by foils.  The format is simple, two team-ups across the pre- and post-titles.  The first episode captures a neat dynamic with a younger and competitive Green Arrow – with Batman grudgingly naming him his preferred defender of justice.

Within episodes, the framework of superheroes around Batman had been set, with firm references to the past and future.  Accruing the most appearances, The Green Arrow and Blue Beetle are modernised versions – rebooted in the former, literally in the latter.  But by the end of the first season, the Green Arrow has landed his Black Canary and there’s event been time to explore the late Ted Kord, the original Charlton Comic Blue Beetle.

Alongside Red Tornado and Jack Kirby classics Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth and OMAC, TBATB promotes lesser heroes – including Metamorpho – a character who first appeared in the pages of TBATB but is now a young member of The Outsiders (DC’s X Men).  Green Arrow is as high profile as Batman’s allies get – with Black Canary, Black Lightning and Red Tornado near and rivals on the spectrum.  Arrow’s dominance in this league came at a time the young arrow was discovering green in Smallville and far before the success of the Arrow TV series.  Still, it’s a shame it clashed with Man of Steel and Dark Knight scripter, David Goyer’s late 2000s film pitch, Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max.  That was a film that would highlight the lesser known hero and villains much as TBATB did.  The outsider of the DC film universe.

That framework’s established so quickly that by mid-season , a two-parter could visit the alternative, reversed Earth-2, where the Red Hood fights in futility against Owlman and the Crime Syndicate of America he belongs to.  Without Superman and Wonder Woman, these characters had to be drawn well.  The Red Hood was immaculate.

Batvillains

Talking of that Red Hooded rogue, TBATB wasn’t just a showcase for Superheroes in their Silver Age (and later) splendour, but also the villains.  Major Disaster, the Weather Wizard, Calculator, the Clock King all had their moments, as did the Blackgate Penitentiary and inevitably, Arkham Asylum.  As it should, the show plays lightly with the well known and pushes the lesser known and new to the fore.  Catwoman is refreshingly a villain (cat burglar) once more.  Still, the love interest aspect remains and leads to and surely the subject of the open-ended finale in Inside the Outsiders (“Women are a tricky, tricky business”).

Then there’s the new ones.

New villains are difficult to introduce.  The Animated Series lucked out by introducing the rarest of foes – one who was adopted into the comics.  But then, for every Harlequin, there’s a Sewer King and Tygrus.  TBATB gives it a good stab.  The Babyface Gang may seem pretty generic, but with the addition of Mrs Man Face, take a twist for the bizarre (“The hammer of justice is unisex”).  The closest the first series gets to the gangs of Gotham, Babyface is a criminal taking the same leaf out of Dick Tracy’s book as the 60’s series sometimes did.  The main attempt however, is at the other end of the scale, the mystical realm of Dr Fate.  Equinox, a supernatural figure obsessed with balance ties Batman as skilfully into the magical realm of the DC universe as John DiMaggio’s ebullient Aquaman does to the gates of Atlantis and the surly Guy Gardener to space.

The DC Universe is vast, encompassing the real gods of Olympus with the biblical (from Lucifer to Zauriel) and the magic that extends from Pandora and the Phantom Stranger and even pre-time.   TBATB wears all of it on it cowl, allowing time travel access to Jason Blood and Etrigan the Demon in the time of Merlin as well as 19th century London where the world’s greatest detective must team-up with Sherlock Holmes.  That mixture of the real and fantastic has posed challenges to many writers, but TBATB allows him to prowl the rooftops of Gotham as easily as the outer reaches of space. From Gotham to Star City, to the Green Lantern home base of the Planet Oa or Adam Strange’s Rann, TBATB covers the lot.

Batlights

There are many highlights in the series, including singing, miting and Robins.

The murky Colour of Revenge features a team-up between Batman and Robin, for the most part in his older Nightwing, guardian of Blüdhaven guise – though for ease he remains Robin (multiple iterations of Robin would rather ruin TBATB format).  But while their relationship plays on different Robins over the years, the prologue flashback is pure 60s TV series.

Referencing the history of the Dark Knight reached a peak in the 19th episode, Legends of the Bat Mite.  Scripted by legendary BTAS alumni Paul Dini, it plays as fast and loose with the Knight’s history.  Far more than a punning title it fits in multiple DC Comic Elseworlds references and even Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, crossing barriers that you’d normally expect in a Warren Ellis  Planetary crossover.  During the episode, perpetual pain Batmite crosses the fourth wall to voice the show’s statement of intent:

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

The imp from the 5th dimension, much like the creators, had a point.

Batman takes the mantle of the series, but as Batmite points out on behalf of those creators, he doesn’t necessarily carry the characteristics you might expect.  Anguish and gruffness has been replaced by a wry sense of humour and a fondness for a catchphrase – often including a reference to justice like the many variations on “Crime doesn’t take a holiday, and neither do I”.  As I’ve written before, the Dark Knight is a character defined by movement from and within his narrow, mythical confines.  Barely touching on Wayne’s past or Alfred, hardly revealing the Batcave and neatly, whenever sans mask, Bruce Wayne’s face is hidden (first series at least).  So long defined by the dual persona, this is pure Dark Knight.

At the end of the series, an episode introducing the Musical Maestro shows that the series could change its format.  Virtually entirely musical, its fits a tale of global crime into a repurposing of the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s evidently a storytelling format full of confidence that makes the earlier The Batman series fade in the gloom.

Batrole

TBATB is not only a neat showcase for Batman and lesser known DC superheroes and villains, but also neat launching point into the whole DC universe.  That’s Batman’s key worth.  TBATB earned its own part of the DC multiverse after the Infinite Crisis storyline: Earth 23.

It’s no surprise given Man of Steel’s success in its own right, that it’s Superman’s cowled compatriot who will come on board to open up the DC Universe for everybody else.  The literally mythic Wonder Woman is the last of DC’s trinity and the last easy to translate – but then that’s the same challenge as Marvel faced bringing in Thor to Iron Man’s world.  The Caped Crusader in Batman versus Superman will be darker, older and gnarlier than has appeared in film before, not the workaholic blue and grey quipster of TBATB, but his cohesive role will be the same.  Reach into the utility belt for the Unifying DC Universe Batspray.

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